Is the Government’s Poverty Measure Too Simplistic?

You know from reading Chapter 4 on Conceptualization and Measurement (in ISW8) that the U.S. government’s official measure of poverty is based on a standard developed by Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration 50 years ago. At that time, an average household spent about one third of their income on food and Orshansky used this as a basis of “absolute” concept of poverty: not having enough money for food.

But now the average person spends much more on housing and transportation; food accounts for only 6% of the budget. A new Supplemental Poverty Measure developed by the Census Bureau takes into account a broader mix of expenses. This measure identifies fewer children as poor in the U.S. and more elderly persons as poor.

Does this new approach seem better to you? Some researchers argue that it still misses the point, because poverty is not simply a shortage of resources but a multidimensional state that affects many aspects of life. An Oxford University researcher says that “the shame and stigma is as bad as the deprivation” for teens in poor neighborhoods.

You can read more about the controversy at:

This article reminds us that, as University of Chicago economist Bruce D. Meyer says, “poverty measures are very political.”

Which approach to measuring poverty makes the most sense to you? Do you favor a single standard or a multidimensional indicator? Do you conceptualize poverty based on an absolute, relative, or subjective standard (see ISW8, chapter 4, pp. 105-106)? Do you agree that measurement is political?

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